Hitting the brick wall in Afghanistan – FB ALI

Hitting the brick wall in Afghanistan

The United States and its allies appear to be preparing for a significant U-turn in their Afghan policy. When President Obama enunciated his new policy in his West Point speech in November 2009, he announced a big increase in US and ISAF troops there. Their mission would be to turn the war around and hand it over to an Afghan government and army able to continue it in order to achieve full control of their country.

Within a couple of months this policy has hit the ‘brick wall’ of harsh reality, and all the rosy assumptions upon which it was based (many of them deliberately manufactured by the war party) lie in tatters.

The first reality-check was provided by the Afghan elections and their aftermath. They proved that there was no chance of a legitimate, reasonably effective Afghan government emerging to which a handover could take place in two years, as the policy envisaged. This realisation probably led to another, and harder, look at the wildly unrealistic assumptions relating to the setting up of a strong Afghan military able to take over security in the country from foreign troops at the same time. The election left the political strategy of the new policy in tatters.

The success of the new military strategy depended on Pakistan clearing out Taliban insurgents in its tribal areas and establishing control over them (the ‘anvil’ to McChrystal’s ‘hammer’). The Pakistanis have now made it clear (embarrassingly, quite publicly) that they are not prepared to extend their operations to the areas the US wanted them to occupy. (This was predicted in a pieceon this website, which went on to warn that, if the US sought to strong-arm Pakistan into taking such action, it would greatly increase the risk of the country being taken over by Islamic nationalists. The US has wisely decided not to try this hazardous tactic). With the Pakistan ‘anvil’ gone, and no viable Afghan army in sight, the rest of the military strategy is now seriously compromised.

Meanwhile, the governments of countries whose soldiers were doing some real fighting (Britain, Canada, and more recently, France) made it clear to Obama that it was not going to be politically feasible for their troops to stay on beyond 2011. All these developments opened up the likely prospect of another Vietnam quagmire, with the generals endlessly pursuing the chimera of victory in an unwinnable war, continuously asking for more time and resources (and threatening to blame him for the defeat if they didn’t get what they wanted).

Other reality checks came closer at home. Obama’s economic advisers probably told him that the war was not economically sustainable beyond next year. His political advisers must have told him that he didn’t have enough political capital left to support the continuation of an unpopular war. The Pentagon probably indicated that keeping up this level of operations in Afghanistan after 2011 would bust the US army. The State Department would have made clear that it wasn’t getting the volunteers it needed to staff the civilian ‘surge’.

Faced with all this harsh reality, it looks as though Obama asked Petraeus and McChrystal whether they could deliver what they’d promised in the next two years with the resources that they had asked for, which he had provided. Realising that there was no prospect of a blank cheque upon which they could draw in the future, and that the inevitable failure would result in their heads being handed to them on a platter, they appear to have backed off. The best available option then remaining was an indigenous political settlement including the Taliban and other insurgents (this course was advocatedas the only realistic solution possible on this website over an year ago, and several times since). This course has now apparently been accepted behind the scenes at the recent London conference, and has in turn led to this sudden change of tune by various generals (wily politicians have either kept their mouths shut, or created verbal smokescreens).

As reported in the New York Times recently, here is some of what they are saying:

Petraeus: "The concept of reconciliation, of talks between senior Afghan officials and senior Taliban or other insurgent leaders, perhaps involving some Pakistani officials as well, is another possibility."

McChrystal: " As a soldier, my personal feeling is that there’s been enough fighting……… I think any Afghans can play a role if they focus on the future, and not the past," (when asked whether he would be content to see Taliban leaders in a future Afghan government).

To these blunt admissions they add various caveats regarding weakening the Taliban, and negotiating from a position of strength. These may be just about saving face, or they may be lingering remnants of past illusions. They do not change the basic reality, namely, that a decision has been made to negotiate the best possible deal with the Taliban and other insurgents, thereby allowing for a pullout of US and INSAF troops some time next year. The Pakistan military appears to have been asked to bring the insurgents to the negotiating table, and to lean on them to come to a settlement.

There is, of course, no guarantee that a deal will be struck. The primary condition of the insurgents for entering into negotiations is that foreign troops depart, though they will likely accept a firm (and limited) timetable for this to happen. If the US hedges on the issue, or seeks an extended draw down period, this could scuttle the talks before they even begin. Karzai’s allies from the former Northern Alliance would be opposed to a Taliban return to the corridors of power and they will attempt to abort the exercise (their realization that the US is pulling out will considerably limit the latter’s ability to influence them). Pakistan will influence the insurgents in the direction of its own security interests, and these may not conform to those of the US (or Hamid Karzai’s); they could conceivably even act as a spoiler. Above all, Karzai knows that, for the insurgents, a deal with him would be a temporary arrangement till they could get rid of him. If he thinks he’s not getting sufficient safeguards, he could sabotage the peace process.

But the greatest threat to the prospects of a negotiated settlement could come from ambitious generals with too many troops and no war to win. McChrystal seems to realise this (“You just really don’t make progress, politically, during fighting”) yet he talks about “shaping conditions”. Trying to do this through offensive operations (which other generals are already talking about) would be like sending in a bull to ‘shape’ your china shop before putting it on the market. The US cannot come anywhere near the ‘shaping’ the Russians attempted, but that didn’t save them from having to leave with their tail between their legs.

However events actually play out, it seems fairly certain that the United States will be out of Afghanistan in a couple of years. Sadly, even if a deal is finally struck, the war will still go on for many more months in blighted Afghanistan, and many more men, women and children will needlessly die. On the other hand, if no agreement is reached, the civil war there will go on and on, with neighbouring powers aiding their own proxies. And so even more people will die, or be maimed, or become wandering, hopeless refugees.

And the Great Game will go on.

© FB Ali  (January 2010)

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27 Responses to Hitting the brick wall in Afghanistan – FB ALI

  1. N. M. Salamon says:

    Thank you for the analysis. This analysis applies to the long war issue of the previous posting, for the reality of the health of the USA armed forces and the reality of the effective insolvency of the USA economy puts paid to military adventurism – except if the USA elites attempt the impossible, therby destroying the USA in short order, a la USSR in the 1990-s

  2. This is a very excellent and accurate POST IMO!
    Thanks for contribution of your insight to this blog.
    Much appreciate by me and I am sure others.
    I am now thinking that Pakistan despite calling off the dogs of war in the NWF is probably going to be unable to control future events with any certainty. Expect tensions to ratchit up greatly in the ruling elites in Pakistan and they understand their pact with the DEVIL–fundamentalists and taliban–will not provide a future for them or their children. Time for really hard nosed contingency planning over control and nuclear surety of the so-far only Islamic Bomb. Again IMO.

  3. Paul says:

    So much for “shock and awe”!

  4. Andy says:

    I don’t have any comment on FB Ali’s analysis at this time, but I thought this Dec. 2008 powerpoint presentation by Gen. McChrystal’s J2, MG Flynn, would be of interest.

  5. Jose says:

    Gen. Ali, will the Taliban actually begin negotiations now that victory is near?
    Also, is there any trust in the Americans since we appointed Karzai and his corrupt administration in the last Loya Jirga ?
    On a side note, last week there was a double episode of “Border Wars” followed by an hour long program on the Special Forces in Afghanistan.
    If you want to see just how unwindable this war is, check out that program.

  6. “policy has hit the ‘brick wall’ of harsh reality, and all the rosy assumptions…the wildly unrealistic assumptions …”
    One question to ask about the present policy debacle is just why and how did the delusional US politicians and military “leaders” get away with their nonsense for so long. WHY and HOW???

  7. Nancy K says:

    I feel shocked and awed about what a big mess we have made and how much it is going to cost us, our children and the Afgan and Iraqi people. The only nation building we should be doing is our own, which is not in good shape right now, economically, infrastructually or unity.

  8. Charles I says:

    Karzai’s pulling out all the stops to keep the US in theatre, judging from this snippet from Juan Cole today:
    “Karzai attempted to raise the stakes for Western success in Afghanistan, saying that a US geological survey will soon announce that the country has $1 trillion in petroleum reserves, in addition to substantial copper and iron ore deposits (China has a contract to mine the copper.)”
    As I have posted previously at my peril, once the vector of dope and war is completed by the discovery of oil, past experience indicates the fighting will go on for some years yet.
    A trillion bucks of oil’d be worth fighting about.

  9. Sidney O. Smith III says:

    A Jacobin only wants to ensure that, before an attack on Iran, USM personnel and assets are deployed to Muslim lands and seen as occupiers by Shia, Sunni and the various tribal groups. Then after an attack on Iran, the goal of a clash of civilizations is one step closer to fulfillment, as surely the Iranian response will focus on the US.
    Nothing else matters.
    Jacobins package and market US foreign policy as promoting freedom and democracy. If they can package a military strategy using the traditional lexicon of COIN, they will. They don’t give a damn about Muslims or their culture, though. Or Americans for that matter.
    Strip away the pretensions of David Brooks, and one can certainly make a legitimate argument that the real purpose of the latest historical incarnation of Jacobinism is the following: use the power of a centralized US government to ensure the goal of Likud Zionism — a greater Israel depopulated of Muslims.

  10. Tony says:

    One of my many questions is that where do Taliban get its weapons from? Where is the source of money? I heard that opium is the source of money, but how do they transfer opium?

  11. N. M. Salamon says:

    My questions are:
    1.,How long will the citizens put up with htese wars, costing over 160 billion per year [as per President’s budgert proposal] when unemployment is south of 10% [closer to 20% if counted as in 1960]?
    2.,And how will the USA Treasury get 1.6 trillion dollars from bond sales without resorting to the Fed’s printing presses [thereby debasing the currency, which has negative effect on most citizens]?
    3., How long can the President and Congress kepp on upsetting China, ere the blowbakc with VERY SERIOUS CONSEQUENCES for USA Economy?

  12. greg0 says:

    In my opinion, big money is still to be made from this fiasco and that is a problem for a future Afghanistan. Will peace ever happen? Will it or can it ever be imposed?
    China may create a military base in Pakistan. They also may go to the moon by 2020 and create a colony there.
    How does this benefit the wealthy elites here? Or are they looking beyond nationalism to a new corporate type of power?
    Sure looks like America has to hedge it’s bets.

  13. JohnH says:

    “Ambitious generals with too many troops and no war to win.” And a $700 Billion dollar defense budget to defend or lose it to Social Security, Medicare and health care.
    Oh well, there’s always Iran or Venezuela. Quagmires ‘R US still has options.

  14. Sidney Smith, All
    My friend Prof. Claes Ryn, who teaches at Catholic University in DC, deals with the Jacobin matter and the Neocons in his: “America the Virtuous. The Crisis of Democracy and the Quest for Empire” (New Brunswick NJ: Transaction, 2003). He argues the Neocons are, in essence, Jacobins dedicated to the “permanent Revolution.”
    Thus Neocons and their ilk are constantly seeking to stir the pot globally so as to draw the US into a permanent global crusade/war, the so-called “long war.”
    In some ways, one could argue, the Israeli population is a prisoner of higher international circles. We might loosely group these as “Anglo-Zionist” and refer to Martin Gilbert’s book: “Churchill and the Jews” for example for some context. Also, we can note the anti-Zionist arguments of leading British (and American) Jews in the early 1900s which were prophetic and which sadly ring true today.
    IMO, the US Neocons service this Anglo-Zionist power. The Fascism of the Neocons should not surprise as Revisionist Zionism bases itself on, for example, V. Jabotinsky himself a Fascist, though Jewish. And of course the British secretly supported Mussolini now didn’t they? (Hoare and that crowd I mean).

  15. PirateLaddie says:

    Charles I may be right, assuming that no, no lessons were learned from the Iraq “cheap oil” debacle. Having worked with the minions of our Empire in “the land of the pure” (Karachi & I’bad), I wouldn’t put an attempted end-run past some of our folks on the ground. However, I believe recent misadventures have brought a “never again” mindset back to the ever-aspiring one-stars. Smith’s Zion card is another, more troubling matter entirely….

  16. confusedponderer says:

    from what I read the Taliban get their basic weapons (AKs, RPGs) from Pakistan. In Pakistani village workshops they basically build a rifle and weapons generally after a copied design of choice from scrap metal with simple tools. While not exactly ‘good’ in the western sense the arms are apparently quite ‘good enough’. It appears that this arms market is self sufficient. I can’t find the article on that atm.
    These weapons still need to be bought though, and where they get the money from, I don’t know.

  17. PirateLaddie says:

    Tony — things change over time, but during the mid-90’s, the heroin was partly refined in eastern Afghanistan/western Pakistan, then camel caravaned down Balochistan to the coast. There it was picked up by dhows & other vessels.
    Cute system, since the traders rented their transport from tribals, so if they were intercepted & the “vehicles” confiscated, the owners could talk to their cousins in the military or the FC and get them back by paying a fine.

  18. Sidney O. Smith III says:

    Prof. Kiracofe
    Thank you for the references. If I had time, I would look at them today.
    In my opinion, all analysis must answer to the following assumption. People within the USG desire to see the US lead the way in a clash of civilizations vs. the Muslim world.
    If analysis does not incorporate that assumption, to whatever degree, then it will not withstand the test of time.
    Moreover, if it doesn’t, then odds increase the person(s) writing the analysis is interested in career and/or rank advancement more than the long term interest of the American people. In civilian terms it is called selling out.
    Habbakuk, in his critique of Strauss and the World of Intelligence, referenced one of Sherman Kent’s prophetic warning that strategic intel analysis should not “take off from the [ideological] wish” or disaster awaits. As a historical reference to make the point, Kent in his famous book, Strategic Intel for Am. World Policy (46, 66) pointed to the Nazis.

  19. N. M. Salamon says:

    The financial picture painted by Mr. Farrel at Market Watch indicates that Ali is right, the politicians decided that the long war is unaffordable> Please read:
    and Weep!

  20. Adam L Silverman says:

    Anonymous: The One Tribe at a Time concept laid out by MAJ Gant is unlikely to work in the broad socio-cultural framework of Afghanistan or Pakistan. Afghan society is not tribal, per se, the way most people use the term. Army HTS released an unclassified report on this topic, specifically focusing on the Pashtuns, late last Summer. Some Pashtuns, and other Afghans, behave more like we think of a tribe (decent from real or mythic historic ancestor, centralized hiearchy, tight kinship), while others do not. Moreover, the divisions even among the Pashtuns are so regionally and dialectic/linguistically dependent that common cause among the sub groups may be problematic. While I think, based on my own experience, that MAJ Gant’s approach was a very good one, the real criticism is that he inserted his ODA into an inter kinship dispute between lowland and highland members of the same kinship group. One can reasonably concludes that had his team been inserted with the highland subgroup that he would have gotten the story in reverse and likely partnered with them against the low landers. Or had two teams been inserted with each group, each would have gotten that subgroups version of the dispute.
    And this discussion takes place before we get to any of the other socio-cultural divisions in Afghanistan or the drivers. Especially as a lot of the drivers aren’t Pashtunness or Hazaraness, but are instead about access to resources or disputes over religious interpretation or the right to control smuggling routes for drugs and weapons.
    Disaggregating the population out so that it can be separated from the negative actors and reoriented towards the government is a good idea. But in Afghanistan the government has never commanded wide support and there is so much nuance to the disaggregation it would be exceedingly difficult to run an effective solution one tribe at a time.

  21. Patrick Lang says:

    I think it is unimportant whether or not Afghans are “tribal” in an anthropological sense. the important thing is that skill and sympathy make local groups susceptible to recruitment. pl

  22. Adam L Silverman says:

    The nuance that you’re bringing up is absolutely correct, and I’m sorry for eliding it in my comment. The issue, however, still goes to a society that is so comprised of so many different and often subtle and context dependent identities that I’m not sure that the skill and sympathy gets us very far beyond local groups or the local level. In one sense that’s not a big deal as I think, as I’ve written about here in the past, if we’re going to be engaged in Afghanistan then the focus should be that lowest level. The problem I see is that the stated goals are not to secure, stabilize, and develop those local levels and then largely withdraw, but rather to work all the way up to the national level. Once you do that all the skills of MAJ Gant and his team mates and their ability to reorient the population goes right out the window as the group or groups they’re working with will be in competition with a group or groups that some other ODA or a PRT or an MEF or an NGO is working with. This is essentially what happened in Iraq. The folks on the ground in a number of places had a lot of really great success that was undercut by the stuff that came out of Embassy or by other units. And Iraq is far more suited for this strategy than Afghanistan.

  23. PirateLaddie says:

    Col. Lang is right about the functional nature of Pathan “tribalism.” Their control of the transport sector in southern Sind, especially Karachi & the long haul trucking essential to the logistics of our Afghanistan campaign, is anything but a traditional tribal enterprise.
    In an aside, I had a few “coach guns” made-to-order in Darra Adam Khel, in the FATA. Gave them a photo of an old stagecoach side-by-side w/barrel & stock lengths. The pieces are somewhat ornate — engraved, not inlaid or chased — and would not meet with the approval of F.lli Rizzini, et.al. Fully functional, even if the firing pins need occasional adjustment.
    Back in the ’80’s in Danao City in the Visayas, PI, you could get some really interesting sidearms (revolvers chambered for M-16 ammo!!) that were more conversation pieces than day-to-day tools of the trade.

  24. FB Ali says:

    NMS, WRC
    I’m glad you, and others, found the note useful. Thank you for the appreciation.
    I think the Taliban and other insurgents could be brought to the negotiation table. After all, it’s better to achieve your aims by talking than fighting. Quicker, too. Pakistan has considerable leverage with them, especially the top Taliban leadership, and could prevail upon them to talk. The Saudis, with promises of future financial aid, could also exert influence. So long as the talks lead to the early exit of foreign forces, the insurgents will likely be quite happy to take their chances in the resulting set-up.
    One Tribe at a Time
    This is a catchy but very misleading name for what Gant is advocating. Sure, he achieved remarkable success in a couple of villages, but to believe that the same thing could be done on a countrywide basis is delusional. To paraphrase Adam Silverman’s technical exposition, Afghanistan doesn’t have a few tribes that a few Gants could win over in short order, it has thousands of tribes, sub-tribes, clans, sub-clans and families, many of them with opposing interests and agendas, as well as long-standing enmities and feuds. The Gant template can’t work on this scale. Even the Iraq experience doesn’t hold good here; the Sunnis, a threatened minority, signed up in order to strengthen themselves for the coming showdown with the Shias. All they were required to do was to turn on the takfiris, who were disliked foreigners, not countrymen (as the Afghan insurgents would be).
    The ‘citified’ Afghan is quite different from his village compatriot. The tribal bonds melt away in the struggle to survive in a cutthroat environment; money replaces the old tribal values and mores. This is the type you saw in Karachi; they make excellent entrepreneurs. They now control the entire long-distance trucking business from Karachi to Peshawar and beyond.

  25. Patrick Lang says:

    Why should we care about “the nation?” pl

  26. PirateLaddie says:

    Has “Jacobin” become the new term of art in a politically sensitive dance? While there’s a certain resonance to the word, a more apt (on many levels) one comes to mind regarding those seeking “permanent revolution.” Given the roots (ideological and otherwise) of many neocons, shouldn’t the term “Trotskyite” be receiving wider play?

  27. Michael says:

    This is a great analysis, thanks. Not clearly stilted against the effort as so-called analyses before the war were (not here), but clearly laying out and contextualizing the situation. That said, it is remarkable how fast the responsibly pessimistic predictions of the situation.
    Something the anti-war anti-Obama left will have to come to grips with if this analysis is correct, though: it appears very possible that what Obama has before him, if he is smart enough to accept it, is the opportunity to withdraw from two wars and deliver peace to the country for the political price of withdrawal from just one. If it is true that the major press is obscuring the fundamental policy shift, and that McChrystal is consciously carrying it out while maintaining public rhetoric consistent with Obama’s announced strategy.
    If this is the case, it seems that ground commanders’ overriding responsibility in the 18-month period upcoming is force protection above all.
    This could of course be a pipe dream, and what we are in for in 2011 is a campaign for further escalation despite the president’s warnings that will put the 2009 contretemps quickly in context. One cannot know at this time.

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